Vijay Mallya, an Indian liquor and airline magnate who revels in the tycoon lifestyle, wants to bring his good times to the rest of the world.
Mr. Mallya, 51, built one of India’s largest domestic airlines with aggressive marketing, pocketfuls of cash and a big deal. Now, he is taking his fleet overseas. He plans to bring Kingfisher Airlines, known in India for its saucy flight attendants, top-notch service and the slogan Fly the Good Times, to the United States and Europe as soon as next year.
Back in June, 2007, Mallya added fuel to his overseas plans with a $7 billion order for 50 Airbus planes at the Paris air show. “Our strategy at Kingfisher is to open new long-haul routes and expand existing ones,” he said.
The deal includes five Airbus A340s, which are economical to fly only on long-haul trips. Before Wednesday, Mr. Mallya had five Airbus superjumbo A380s on order, which he plans to fly nonstop to the East Coast of the United States, and five A340s intended for nonstop flights to West Coast cities.
His successes in other businesses are legendary in India, but the foray into international air travel comes at a time when airlines with even deeper pockets, from places including Dubai and Singapore, are attracted by India’s growing numbers of passengers.
And India’s young aviation industry has so far been all boom and no bust, meaning that new carriers like Kingfisher have no experience handling an economic downturn.
Mr. Mallya took over a sprawling family-owned group when he was 27 and turned the businesses into one of India’s most respected, best-known conglomerates, the UB Group, increasing revenue more than tenfold along the way. Taking Kingfisher Airlines international is the next logical step, he said.
“Any serious airline has to look at a worldwide network,” he said in a recent interview in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, as he smoked cigarillos and drank more than one large tumbler of Scotch over ice. “Today, there is serious international growth in and out of India,” he said. “It is an opportunity one should not miss.”
The number of domestic passengers in India increased nearly 40 percent over the last year. International passengers flying from Indian airports increased 25 percent. And only an estimated 3 percent of the nation’s billion people flew last year, so there is plenty of room for growth.
The latest order, and other outstanding orders, will bring Kingfisher Airlines’ overall fleet to 176 aircraft by 2018, from 30 now. Meanwhile, the airline, which started in 2005, has not yet made a profit. Mr. Mallya predicts that will come in the next fiscal year.
As a start-up, Mr. Mallya says, Kingfisher has some advantages that existing American and European carriers do not.
“These airlines grew so large and so unwieldy over the years that they are difficult to manage,” he said. “We have built Kingfisher brick by brick, making sure along the way that we don’t overstaff ourselves, that we use the right technology and that we plan everything to be neat and tight and efficient.”
While he characterizes his business plan that way, Mr. Mallya personally is the sort of unfettered corporate czar that many American boardrooms have not seen in at least half a century. He surrounds himself with a close group of longtime advisers, wears copious diamonds, holds business meetings at his house until 5 in the morning, winks at female journalists and flaunts the “good times” corporate motif in most aspects of his life.
At home, a Mercedes, a Ferrari and a Bentley are parked in his driveway. His ornate living room is filled with silver gilded furniture and art objects like a marble statue of a nymph-like woman, as well as a Picasso sketch. His CD collection includes dance, lounge and party music.
In an India where a growing middle class is rushing to embrace “Good Times,” Mr. Mallya’s image and lifestyle have become part and parcel of the company. The country’s young population “look on me as a kind of an icon,” he said, adding, “That works well for me, and it works well for the business too.”
One thing that Mr. Mallya’s carefully choreographed reputation may be hiding is that he cannot seem to stop working. “I’m not a T.G.I.F. guy,” he said. “I get off a plane at 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m looking for my secretary because I want to know what’s going on.”
“I work hard and I play hard, too,” he quickly added. “There is nothing wrong with that.”
Story in NYTimes.